Walk Like a Man, Talk Like a Man

John Waters meets Shakespeare in Love in the vibrant, thrilling, colorful and somewhat campy Stage Beauty, set in the bawdy days of the British Restoration, when women were forbidden to appear onstage and men won admirers on both sides of the sexual equation for playing everything from Aphrodite to Juliet. In 1661, waspish London diarist Samuel Pepys (the Cholly Knickerbocker of his day) wrote the most beautiful woman on the stage was Ned Kynaston, a flamboyant, bisexual cross-dresser who reduced grown men to marmalade with his voluptuous Desdemona. This does not describe Billy Crudup, but more about that later. Stage Beauty is the story of not only Ned Kynaston, but of the raunchy, rancid and randy times he lived in. It’s fascinating stuff.

For 18 years, no public performances of any kind were permitted in England, thanks to the Puritanical and repressive decades ruled by the anally retentive Oliver Cromwell. But in 1660, when the Stuart dynasty was restored to the throne with the coronation of prissy, fun-loving Charles II (Rupert Everett), a new era of exploration and permissiveness blossomed called the Restoration, and theaters once again played to full houses. The stage was still considered improper employment for ladies (what’s more, it was illegal), and Ned Kynaston played all of the best female roles, relishing his wigs and lipstick so much that he even greeted his public backstage in full makeup, reducing lady fans to fainting spells by displaying his endowments under his petticoats. He also carried on a passionate affair with his patron and lover, Lord Buckingham (Ben Chaplin)—all to the horror of his loyal dresser, prompter and stagehand Maria (Claire Danes), who studies his every move in Othello with the dream of someday playing Desdemona herself. When the king, who longs for some fresh flesh and gender-bending titillation onstage (and who, as wittily played by Mr. Everett, is a bit effete himself), suddenly lifts the ban on women and insults Ned by decreeing that men can no longer wear gowns, Maria seizes the opportunity to finally become a star while Ned’s career plummets. Without the sexual fantasy of bedding a man pretending to be a woman, Lord Buckingham deserts him and marries a real female, and Ned is ruined.

The dilemma is sad but ironically amusing: Maria, the new star, can’t act, and Ned, whose identity and self-confidence have been tossed on the rubbish heap along with his high-heel shoes, can’t play male roles. On a downward spiral, the drunken and dissipated Ned is beaten and left for dead in a park by one of Maria’s own jealous “sponsors,” then rescued by her. In a country inn secluded from London gossip and prying eyes, they find redemption in each other: While he teaches his former dresser how to play Desdemona, she tenderly inspires him to inject the Moor’s speeches with manly authority and gives him a graduate degree in how to really make love to a woman. With the skeptical theater owner (Tom Wilkinson), the irascible King Charles and his mistress, Nell Gwynn (Zoe Tapper)—a tart so notorious there are still pubs and taverns named after her to this day—all applauding wildly, stardom miraculously returns in a triumphant production of Othello. But in the end, the half of his dual sexual psyche Ned loves the most is still in doubt.

What a story, and how little of it was ever revealed until playwright Jeffrey Hatcher dramatized it for the stage and then adapted his own screenplay for the film after reading Samuel Pepys’ diaries of the Restoration in a secondhand bookshop and researching the characters of the period as well as he could. How much of the story is accurate I cannot tell you, but in director Richard Eyre the project has found a perfect choice. His film experience has been limited but impressive (who could forget Judi Dench in his wrenching Iris Murdoch biopic, Iris?), and his period theater research is impeccable. There are several concurrent themes at work here—the search for sexual liberation in a time of repression and religious hypocrisy, the emergence of 17th-century feminism, the way beautiful young men were used as toy-boys by the British upper classes, the theatrical stage as a reflection of the evolving politics of British history—and Mr. Eyre has bathed each one in a radiant amber gel. The production values are rich, the sets are arresting—from the lurid taverns where Maria secretly performs vulgar parodies of Shakespearean roles in Ned’s stolen costumes, to the king’s lavish private dinner parties, to the piles of steaming manure in the filthy streets of London—to the point that you feel you have been transported by time machine to the 1660’s.

The acting is splendid. The big surprise is Claire Danes, who grows from Ned’s shy, stagestruck backstage serf to his powerhouse rival, ruining his career while challenging him—personally and professionally—to reinvent himself. Both Ms. Danes and Mr. Crudup master demanding and complex roles, in the formality of their onstage acting as well as the subtlety of their private love scenes, where she teaches him to be a man not by what he does, but by how he feels.

My only problem with Stage Beauty is that Billy Crudup lacks stage beauty. As a transvestite described as the most beautiful woman on the stage, he did not convince me. A prettier actor, like Rob Lowe or Ben Affleck, would have made a more alluring woman in rouge, eyelashes and powdered curls, but might not have been skillful enough to bring the same artistic flourish to the role. Still, there is something awkward and disconcerting about Mr. Crudup. As a “man in a woman’s form,” his bone structure is too sharp, his shoulders are too broad, his hips are too narrow, his muscles are too sinewy. When Mr. Chaplin throws him out of bed, it’s not because he’s no longer a lady, but because Mr. Crudup is bigger than the mattress. No question about his acting chops, but in drag Mr. Crudup looks like a college jock roped into playing the lead in an embarrassing frat-house parody of Charley’s Aunt.

Put the Kettle On

More British working-class suffering from Mike Leigh infects the dreariness of Vera Drake, which opens commercially this week after its initial unveiling at the New York Film Festival. Despite the honest, penetrating and open-faced presence of the distinguished Imelda Staunton in the title role, the film is something of an ordeal. Vera is a kind and charitable maid in 1950 who makes her daily rounds in a battered cardigan and sensible shoes administering to the sick and needy, clucking over her husband, a garage mechanic, and providing a meager life for her son, an apprentice tailor, and her spinsterish daughter, who works in a light-bulb factory. Life is grim, but for Vera no hurdle is so daunting that it can’t be put right by putting the kettle to the boil for a fresh cup of tea. Between scrubbing the floors of the well-to-do and mashing the spuds for her numbingly dull family, Vera also masters another line of work in which she finds the appreciation and gratitude she doesn’t get at home. Vera, you see, performs illegal abortions for women in trouble. She sees nothing wrong with this sideline. She’s just trying to help, charging no fee for her services and innocently unaware that her sleazy “agent” is ripping her off in the bargain. It all comes to a bad end when one of her “clients” nearly dies, the police arrive in the middle of her daughter’s engagement celebration, and the family is scandalized. Vera is tried, convicted and sentenced to prison. A flood of tears ensues.

The whole story is worth enduring for about 30 minutes max, but Mike Leigh drags out every painful minute for 125 minutes that seem like 125 days. We are forced to watch repeatedly as Vera hums cheerfully while unwrapping the tools of her trade—a bar of soap, a cheese grater, a bottle of disinfectant and a rubber hose—when once would be more than enough. Then, after she’s arrested and dragged to the station house, we are held hostage as Vera goes through each and every halting, agonized, gasping, sobbing, punishing moment of interrogation like a child about to be flogged for sticking a finger in the fudge. When she is ordered to remove the wedding ring she hasn’t taken off her finger in 27 years, you wonder if she’ll get it off before the camera runs out of film. In most Mike Leigh films, the accents and brogues are so thick you need subtitles. Not here. Imelda Staunton’s stoic sweetness spreads through her voice like clotted cream on a scone. Still, what is the point? If the director intends to drum up sympathy for the plight of women seeking abortions in 1950, when the movie takes place, it’s too late. The abortion law of 1861 that condemns Vera Drake was modified in 1938, again in 1967, and the French “abortion pill” was approved in 1991. It would have been advisable to bring everything up to date in the end titles instead of making Vera Drake a martyr for the ages.

Despite my reservations, the acting justifies the pain. It’s hard to imagine that the dumpling-faced star of this turgid melodrama is also one of London’s most popular musical-comedy stars. Transformed from a pleasant, compassionate, optimistic wife and mom to a haggard, traumatized, burned-out old hag branded a criminal by the magistrate’s court, Ms. Staunton gives a mesmerizing performance, but the movie is so slow and grueling that by the time she goes to prison, you wish you had seen her play Miss Adelaide in Richard Eyre’s acclaimed National Theatre production of Guys and Dolls instead.

Good Men Are Hard to Find

Also transferring from Lincoln Center is Undertow, a Southern Gothic tale about violence, blood and frightened children fleeing a demented uncle with a knife. Think Flannery O’Connor with obvious shades of Night of the Hunter. Grieving for years over the death of his wife, a hog farmer and taxidermist (Dermot Mulroney) becomes a hermit in the backwoods with his two sons. The younger boy (newcomer Devon Alan) eats dirt and suffers from epileptic seizures. The older boy (Jamie Bell, gifted star of the cherished Billy Elliot) is on the verge of juvenile delinquency. Into their isolated, unhappy lives comes Dad’s estranged brother (Josh Lucas), a jealous, resentful and mean-spirited convict who slashes Dad’s throat searching for a fortune in hidden gold coins. The older boy heads for the swamps with his fragile, pampered little brother in tow and the coins in his pocket, pursued by the psychotic uncle, and the movie focuses on their adventures on the way to survival.

The result is profound, beautifully photographed and a real Gothic page-turner in the William Faulkner tradition. Director and co-writer David Gordon Green does an admirable job of showing the disparity between four members of two different generations in the same dysfunctional family, while building gobs of menacing ambiance, and all of the actors are superb. Mr. Mulroney and Mr. Lucas have all but disfigured themselves in their apparent distaste for the handsome “leading man” labels they have often been assigned, but the real shock for me in Undertow is the gifted Jamie Bell, whose British accent has disappeared into a cotton-pickin’ drawl that is astoundingly accurate. He plays the first part of the movie as a confused player in a family civil war, a lanky, rural troublemaker caught up in violent circumstances beyond his control. In the second half, he is a man-boy coming of age fast, stuck between childhood duties and adult responsibilities, escaping a sadistic uncle and a dead-end future. What a talent. As a teenage rebel in bayou country with great reserves of strength, sensitivity and range, he is as far removed from the sensitive kid who wanted to be a ballet dancer in Billy Elliot as an alligator in Alaska.